This Thing Called BluesSandy Atkinson 2/2012
I was flipping through the TV channels one night many years ago and found a video called BB King and Friends: A Night of Blistering Blues. It was an amazing show with so many great artists including Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Albert King, a very young Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dr. John and the amazing Etta James. I just happened to tune in right when BB was introducing Etta. She started singing "I'd Rather Go Blind" with Dr. John on piano. She was looking straight at him and he got up and came to her and they did some of that slow dancing, back and forth “Oh Baby” kinda singing. I was glued to that TV and felt chills roll over my body. The power, soul and chemistry between them and that song was one of the strongest performances by any artist that I had ever seen. That was the first time I heard Etta James.
Of course I had to go out and buy some of her music and I learned that song. Although few could ever hold a candle to her, I always think of her and hope I'm doing some justice when I sing that song…her song.
I would guess that most every female blues singer got some inspiration from Etta. She lived the blues and sang it from her heart with a mixture of a kind of gospel feeling that gives the blues so much depth as it did with Ray Charles who got a lot of flack about mixing gospel and blues. You see, the blues was born in the delta to a people who found comfort in song and their God. The music and religion gave them strength to deal with their troubles and distraction when working in the fields. The classic ‘call and response’ lyric style was born in the fields. While the words changed from religion to love and trouble, the passion remained and put fire in the blues.
Life on the road is not all glitz and fun. The road can get very long. But, I cannot begin to imagine life on the road for the Men and Women that began to spread the blues. While they were respected for their music, finding a place to eat, sleep or even go to the bathroom was not always easy. Still, they did it and because of their strength, spirit and talent, we have the great classics from Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Ray Charles, Hubert Sumlin, Koko Taylor Etta James and so many others that those of us that “keep the blues alive” learn from. Thanks in a big way to Aristocrat Records, later known as Chess Records for recording so much of this art for prosperity although I don’t know how much profit the artists received.
And, what would Rock ‘n Roll be without the blues? Keith Richards said: “If you don’t know the blues, there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing Rock and Roll or any other form of popular music.”
It’s true as Muddy said it in his song “The Blues Birthed a Baby and They Called it Rock ‘n Roll.”
It was mostly the British rock scene that picked up on the American Blues to fuel their songwriting in the 60s. Bands like Led Zepplin, Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton took to it like a duck to water. In fact, “Rolling Stone” was a Muddy Waters song. Muddy’s last performance was with Clapton in Florida in 1982.
For those who maybe just starting out in the Blues, you will appreciate the old recordings from Chess Records. Videos of legends like B.B. King and Friends are another great source. When you find those that give you chills, you’ll know you got the best and the right fit for you.
I'm so happy I found that BB King video that night with all the famous legends that are a sort of “next generation” after the Muddy and Wolf era and I highly recommend it to all music lovers. They have passed the torch and inspired a new generation that keeps the blues alive today. I added Etta to my list of inspirations that night as I'm sure many have at seeing her the first time. Her passing was sad, but like those legends that she learned from, she lives on in every blues singer she inspired.
I have always thought that there are two kinds of players. Those that read and those that feel. Some can do both, but it’s rare. Blues is definitely something you have to feel. You can’t fake it. And it doesn’t mean the song has to be sad, quite the contrary. Good blues can make you jump and holler! As Buddy Guy said: “Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues”
Jamesetta Hawkins; January 25, 1938 – January 20, 2012 Etta & Dr. John
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